Euroasian Jewish News
Limited attendance during Purim in Donetsk (Photo: Semyon Dovzhik)
The Jews of Donetsk still living in the midst of Ukraine's ongoing armed conflict
Before the war came, the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk was home to a thriving community of 15,000 Jews.
This was a place where organisations like Chabad, Israel’s Jewish Agency and the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), among others, were all active.
But when pro-Russian militants, backed by the Russian army, took control of the city and other parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, Donetsk became a war zone, a site of constant artillery shelling and heavy fighting.
Led by Donetsk’s rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, the community organised the evaculation of young families to western parts of the country.
Refugees were housed in hotels and summer camps around Kiev in the hope that the fighting would end soon. When that did not happen, Rabbi Vishedski started a community in the Ukrainian capital. Others moved to Israel and Germany.
But up to 3,000 Jews did not leave Donetsk.
“Most of them are elderly people with neither the money nor the energy to leave, all they want is to stay in their own homes, whatever the consequences,” Rabbi Vishedski says.
International Jewish organisations have either pulled out of Ukraine entirely or reduced their support to a minimum, he adds, leaving many entirely dependent on the support of the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews (IFCJ), the charity founded by the late Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.
“There is a soup kitchen that feeds about 150 people every day,” he says. “The synagogue is active and sometimes the JDC is open as well. There are only seven children left in the kindergarten, and 25 pupils in the school. There is one inexperienced teacher trying to fill in all Judaism studies, as much as she is able.”
In Donetsk’s synagogue, the acting rabbi is Odessa-born Arie Shvartz. This is now the fifth year of the war, but the Chabad emissary has not left the city once, not even for a single day.
He is not afraid to go out wearing his kippah and he says that he has never personally experienced antisemitism in Donetsk.
“It is very important for people to come to the synagogue,” he says.
“They are looking for help, and the shul has become their source of strength. People who before the war would arrive only on the High Holy Days today come every Shabbat, or even every day.
“The synagogue is also the place to meet friends, as nowadays people in Donetsk mostly don’t go out.”
The nightly curfew in place between 11pm and 5am means that some services need to be cut short, but for others that is not an option.
“A main challenge is the Passover holiday: we cannot shorten the Seder service so we get through it as quickly as possible,” Rabbi Shvartz says.
“It is extremely difficult to maintain the synagogue and the school and to organise holidays and meals.
“When people sit at the Shabbat table, they can talk about everything — except the war. Politics is off the table. No one knows what will happen tomorrow, people live from day to day.”
Donetsk city centre, where the synagogue is located, is quiet. But just a few kilometres down the road is a different world entirely with buildings destroyed by shelling, deserted streets, and splinters of bombs and rockets lying on the ground.
One resident, Inna Zholob, is preparing for her flight to Israel. In a few days she will be able to embrace her son, Maxim, who lives in Ashdod with his wife and small daughter. Maxim left in 2014, after a rocket exploded near their house.
A shell fragment smashed through the window of their flat and hit a wall, just centimetres above his shoulder. It prompted Maxim to leave immediately; his parents stayed behind.
“Today there were three explosions in the city centre,” says Inna, who declined to share her photograph with the JC because it may endanger her.
“We don’t recognise Donetsk any more, we just want to leave. We have to go through different check points: pro-Russian militia, Ukrainian military, everyone can harm us”.
The tragic memory of prominent community member George Zilberbord, who was killed in 2014 by armed militants who were looting neighbouring houses, is still fresh.
But not everyone is leaving. Michael Katz, who was born in Donetsk, moved to Israel in the 1990s and served in the IDF, but 16 years ago decided to return to his home city to set up a business.
“I love this city; I am used to this place and these people. For me, leaving Donetsk is out of the question,” he says.
“I am an active member of our Jewish community. I am there all the time, and I cannot imagine myself living without this community.”
By Semyon Dovzhik
The Jewish Chronical